søndag den 6. november 2022

Rameau’s Nephew - Denis Diderot (1805)


Rameau's Nephew

Yet again we take a step back in time with another one of Denis Diderot’s leftover manuscripts. As with “The Nun” and “Jacques the Fatalist”, Diderot kept “Rameau’s Nephew” to himself or at least in very local circulation in his lifetime, presumably because the political climate did not allow a public release, and it only found a way to the public in 1805. Even then, it took another 150 years until a version we can consider Diderot’s own version, was published.

The novel takes the form of a dialogue between a first-person character (Diderot himself?) and a character called Jean-Francois Rameau, the nephew of a famous composer with the same surname. These were real characters, and the conversation is presented as if it really took place, yet we can assume that although Diderot and Rameau really had a conversation at a vey specific time and venue, Diderot used this as a framework upon which to discuss and lampoon a number of issues that was on his mind.

Rameau is a scoundrel. A hand-to-mouth swindler and con artist, but also a very self-aware clown, conscious of his own limitations, who simply do what he does best with what he has. And what he does best is to entertain and con people by appealing to their vanity.

During their conversation Diderot and Rameau get into a great many topics, particularly around music, yet the recurrent theme is that appearances matter a lot more than substance and that people want to be fooled and confirmed. Rameau’s current situation is that he has just been dismissed from the family who had sponsored him for the past months. Rameau’s parasitic existence had been to be around, be amusing and confirm the host family of how amazing they were. His dismissal was caused by him telling the truth.

According to Rameau’s creed, the purpose of existence is to eat, drink, bed women and empty the bowels. This is the only obligation and purpose of man, and the means is just whatever works to get there.

Diderot’s purpose for this dialogue has apparently been discussed extensively, yet to my mind it is pretty obvious. Diderot was an incredible gossip, and he got a real kick out of a juicy story. “Rameau’s Nephew” is an outlet where Diderot could lampoon the entire establishment for their scandals and idiocy. In the buffoon of Rameau, the ridiculousness of the establishment becomes condensed and very entertaining and it is a safe space for Diderot as nobody gets to read it. This is Saturday Night Live for the smallest audience possible.

I found it an incredibly amusing read. It is sharp and witty and often caused me to laugh out loud. Very few of the comedic texts of the eighteenth century have accomplished that. Rameau is a tragic clown, a complete cynic with a heart and reading of his exploits is both distressing and highly entertaining. I think Diderot had a blast writing this and I can feel his need to lampoon his fellow men and women seeping through the pages.

“Rameau’s Nephew” is an easy, short read and highly recommended from me. I could totally see such a text being written today. In fact, I got an idea for a novel or sci-fi movie I would read or watch: What if Diderot was really a twenty-first century comedic writer for SNL who fell into a time hole and then had to carve out a life in the eighteenth century? Not so far fetched as you might think. His texts and his views are incredibly modern. I would love to be credited for that idea.


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